“T.” @ American Theater Company

3.5 out of 4 stars

January 6th, 1994 – the world shifted.  At the dawn of the digital age, an elite figure skater and her manager-husband navigate towards the Olympics that will change their lives forever. Revisiting events that rocked the sporting world, Dan Aibel's provocative new play T., named for Tonya Harding, explores the psychology of underdogs, desperate to rise above their class.  The closing of American Theater Company’s Season 32, under new artistic direction from Will Davis, tackles one of the biggest scandals in modern sports. Davis comments that Aibel considers T. as a historical play and has been “fascinated by the ways Jeff Gillooly's story follows a classic narrative of ambition and failure.”  As 24-hour news coverage emerge, the notorious drama exposes a couple hungry for success by any means necessary.


A precursor to other major sports scandals of the decade, director Margot Bordelon illustrates the high tensions and bitter rivalry through careful blocking and attention to body language of such iconic individuals. The magnification of intimate power struggles comes to light with those closest to the main character: a protective father, a loyal coach, a body-guard and a fiercely business-centric husband. No matter your age or familiarity with the shocking events leading up to the 1994 Winter Olympics – the question remains “what does it take to be the best”? Leah Raidt strongly embodies the Tonya Harding based character, who seems to constantly struggle with finding fulfillment within her life. After getting married at a young age, T. seems to be satisfied with knowing her strengths in figure skating, but is fiercely jealous and paranoid of her fellow competitors. The control she finds over her own skating and her costuming alludes to a need for control in all aspects of her life, including the rankings of who’s the best in the sport. 

Stephanie Cluggish’s outstanding costume designs are simply effective for the piece as a whole. Being a historical modern piece, most clothing of the time period can be easily accessible. The variety of quick changes and color schemes for each character keeps the wheel turning and the audience actively engaged in this drama. Bright neon windbreakers and leotards highlight T.’s taste, but also her youth and also perhaps her naive manners? And a nod to the close attention to detail all the way down to partner in crime Shawn’s white grass stained gym shoes. With a cast that is extremely adept, one will forget you are watching a performance and instead feel that you are living this experience - maybe again for some. Guy Massey, Al, adds depth and context to understanding T.’s background and childhood in a lovingly “hick” sort of way. While, Kelli Simpkins, Joanne, excites with such compelling subtle reactionary expressions that make you as invested in T.’s well-being as her character is.


A hidden gem in the North Center neighborhood, this intimate performance space impresses with a stunning use of space. The scenic design by Andrew Boyce pays careful attention to architecture of the late 80s/ early 90s, as well as the rounded accents to the interior decor. The creation of mood is immediately felt upon entering the theater.  With a solid impressionable set, the lighting and sound was the lynch pin. Rachel K Levy, lighting design, and Miles Polaski, sound design, contribute fun dynamic to a dark humored drama. Beautiful vignettes filled with neon-esque gelled lighting are paired with real radio/tv sound bites over pumping beats creating a complexity to the piece. A wonderful experience! 


T. plays at American Theater Company (1909 W. Byron Street, Chicago) now through June 25, 2017. Single tickets range from $20-$38 and are available by calling the ATC box office at 773-409-4125, or visiting www.atcweb.org


Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!